Government guidelines urge people to work from home. So why are government workers required to come to the office?

Austin resident Darby Griffiths works at the IRS and is on unpaid leave over concerns about the cleanliness of the building, which he says is out of hand sanitizer and other items that help prevent the spread of germs. (Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune_
Austin resident Darby Griffiths works at the IRS and is on unpaid leave over concerns about the cleanliness of the building, which he says is out of hand sanitizer and other items that help prevent the spread of germs. (Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune_

Austin resident Taci Palmer has many reasons to worry about the new coronavirus — and her working conditions aren’t making it any easier.

Palmer, a 49-year-old tax examiner with the Internal Revenue Service, is a single mom to her teen son. She’s in remission from Stage 4 ovarian cancer but isn’t in the clear yet. She works in a Walmart-turned-federal-office-building with hundreds of other employees packed in close quarters. And as of Wednesday, amid aggressive shutdowns across the state, she’s still required to come into the office to work.

“I walk into work, and it’s business as usual,” Palmer said. “It’s defeating the whole purpose.”

As more people become infected each day with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus first identified in December 2019, health officials and many employers have urged people to work from home to prevent spread. On Monday, President Donald Trump issued guidelines suggesting people avoid groups larger than 10 people. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees.

But despite federal and state guidance, interviews with employees show that government agencies at every level — local, state, federal — are still requiring many workers to come in, forcing them to choose between their health and their job security while potentially putting the public at risk.

At Austin’s IRS building, which contains hundreds of federal employees who work in sandwiched cubicles, employees said they were worried that working conditions and a lack of clear agency policy were exposing them to danger.

Many of the workers are elderly with underlying health issues, making them more vulnerable to the virus. It’s like working “in a nursing home on a cruise ship — the IRS Princess,” said Timothy Darby Griffiths, another IRS employee in Austin, referencing the two Princess Cruises ships that had COVID-19 outbreaks.

A longtime smoker who had a heart attack a few years ago, Griffiths requested leave without pay and is hoping the federal government will release firmer guidance soon. On Sunday, the Trump administration issued guidance for federal employees in Washington, encouraging flexibility to work from home. However, the recommendation doesn’t apply to all federal workers.

Their jobs are admittedly harder to do from home, Griffiths said, since they deal with sensitive documents like passports and birth certificates. But he’s still waiting for a solution that better considers their safety.

“They’ll wait until there’s ice on the road and then tell everyone to go home,” Griffiths said. “It’s the same with this pandemic. ... I’m not waiting until someone catches this before they say, ‘OK, everybody can leave.’”

IRS officials could not be reached for comment.

The same concerns are happening at the state level. State workers in many departments have been freed to work from home — like the Texas Department of Agriculture, which announced a widespread telework policy Tuesday, effective by the end of the week.

At the Texas Department of Transportation, office staff members are now required to work remotely. But its field operations employees, including maintenance crews, construction managers and ferry operators, have been asked to continue working — albeit several feet apart.

“Beginning Monday, March 16, and continuing through Friday, April 3, all employees who do office work are directed and required to telework unless instructed by their District Engineer or Division Director to come to work,” according to an internal memo obtained by The Texas Tribune.

But field staffers — regularly tasked with cleaning debris after car accidents and repairing roads while cars zoom by — feel left out to dry, said one employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing his job.

“It’s a risky, risky thing that we do every day, and they preach safety to us all the time,” the employee said. “It feels like this time, they are putting the safety of preferred employees first, and not our safety first.”

While they don’t sit next to each other in an office, the field staffers work in close quarters, sharing tools on construction and maintenance projects. Now work crews are being asked to maintain 6 to 8 feet of space between them, conduct meetings outside and avoid sharing equipment.

But that’s not realistic, the employee said.

“We can’t perform our day-to-day tasks because we're just going in and twiddling our thumbs trying to stay away from each other, but we can’t,” the employee said. “And who knows how many people I’ve come in contact with or the guy I work next to. ... We might as well both be standing in a huge crowd.”

Veronica Beyer, a TxDOT spokesperson, said that “if any employee chooses to not work, they must use leave time. The normal procedures for requesting and taking leave are in place.”

Beyer said field staffers are still working “to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”

“Field employees, who do not have an office and are working on construction and maintenance projects, are continuing to work but with higher-standard protocols for increased safety,” Beyer said, adding that the directive could change.

Still, the TxDOT employee said work crews would feel safer if they could go home and instead be “on call” for emergencies.

“Then we can come in and address the situation as needed, but on the day-to-day, for us to be out working together ... doing menial tasks, picking up roadside debris, changing a few signs here and there ... it feels like they don’t know what to do with us.”

The fears are also apparent in cities across Texas where local government leaders are still resisting shutdowns. Where some states have issued across-the-board shutdowns, Abbott has so far deferred to local leaders to decide how to best contain the spread of the respiratory virus.

In Humble — a city of about 16,000 — all city employees, including nonessential ones, were told Monday to continue reporting to their offices, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

“The City continues to remain open,” wrote Humble City Manager Jason Stuebe in the email. “All employees who are able and healthy are expected to report for their regularly scheduled duty.”

Humble is less than 20 minutes from Houston, where city and county officials on Monday declared the coronavirus a public health emergency. Humble ISD is closed through April 10 and said district employees should work from home unless other arrangements are made. There are at least 10 cases in the greater Houston area as of noon Wednesday.

The email asked Humble employees to practice social distancing by limiting gatherings to under 10 people, staying 6 feet apart as allowable and limiting “non-essential interactions and time in the office.”

Stuebe could not be reached for comment.

But employees are concerned with the city’s instructions to continue working, said one Humble employee, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution from her job.

“Clearly we are having to choose between what we think is safest and complying [with the city],” the Humble employee said. “We’re all exposed to people on the outside and then coming into work and exposing your employees.”

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